Elger Esser, Shivta Israel, 2015, C-print, 72 1⁄2 × 90".

Elger Esser, Shivta Israel, 2015, C-print, 72 1⁄2 × 90".

Elger Esser

Galleria Alessandra Bonomo

Made between 2005 and 2017, the photographs in Elger Esser’s recent show proposed a sort of conceptual short circuit in which images of granular precision, transposed to dreamlike dimensions, assumed an otherworldly coloration and brilliance. One could discern specific sites visited by the artist during his travels in the Middle East (Egypt, Israel, Lebanon) and France’s Normandy and Giverny—the last setting immediately and deliberately recalling the luminous revolution of plein air painting by Claude Monet and other Impressionists. The absolute realism of these photographic landscapes, evident in the sense that one could recognize and precisely identify their most minimal details, was continuously complicated through their transformation into timeless spaces that in the end had nothing representational or descriptive about them.

In these and other works, through long exposures and expanded periods of pure contemplation, Esser reappropriates landscape—deserts, gardens, forests, rivers—distancing it within a space that is not empirical but metaphysical, and filtering it through a pictorial vision nurtured by constant references, both visual and conceptual, to art history. His use of photographic printing on silver-plated copper, for example, is explicitly inspired by the technique employed by Adam Elsheimer, a seventeenth-century German artist who lived in Rome and painted on copper to add luminosity to his scenes.

Elsheimer’s dual geographic affinity matches Esser’s mixed cultural identity: Esser was born in Germany in 1967 but lived in Rome from the ages of two to nineteen. Today he is considered one of the leading exponents of the Düsseldorf School, which emerged in the 1980s around a group of former students of Bernd and Hilla Becher who adopted their objectifying and detached photographic gaze. Esser reinterprets this legacy in a highly personal manner, transforming the image into a continuous reflection on the relationship between photography and reality, and between photography and art history—a reflection grounded, in both cases, in the evocative power of beauty and its symbols. In this exhibition, the most frequently recurring subjects were water, shown in silent solitude in spaces illuminated by blinding light, and the luxuriance of nature, presented in a way that alludes to its own transience. Concentrating on these aspects, the artist captured and conveyed a visual memory of places that, while real, were at the same time distilled to an absolute visual and psychological valence; as a result, he brought out multiple meanings and expanded their introspective weight.

The dominant impression these images left us with was one of the luminosity both of the world and of the mind. Esser’s works have the dryness of a deliberately abstract conceptual statement and the softness and warmth of an utterly Mediterranean sense of light. In images that seem suspended at the edge of time, Esser often depicts riverbanks, lakes, and oceans, evidently fascinated (even more than others are) by their liminality, which both invites and impedes approach. Esser has on numerous occasions described his works as internal landscapes with which one establishes instant empathy: They are only apparently familiar images that may draw us in with their immediacy but inevitably lead us elsewhere.

Translated from Italian by Marguerite Shore.